U.S. navy exercise alarms whale watchers

A routine U.S. navy exercise on Whidbey Island sparked a furor when a whale-watching association mistakenly reported that rounds were being fired into the water near endangered southern resident orcas.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association, which represents U.S. and Canadian whale-watching businesses, issued a statement Tuesday night with the headline War Games Among Whales. In it, the group said U.S. sailors were shooting .50-calibre rounds from ships into the water as orcas were swimming nearby.

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In fact, navy personnel from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island were taking part in monthly small-arms practice on shore, using 9-mm rounds fired at targets on land, said spokesman Mike Welding.

“We were conducting routine small-arms training at our training range on the island. We let the coast guard know every month when we do this training … because from this training range we have a safety perimeter that extends about 2,000 feet [about 600 metres] into the water, in case there’s a ricochet,” Welding said.

“We do not shoot directly into the water.”

The training range has safety observers and surveillance cameras, Welding said. “If any boat, any person or any marine mammal was to come into that training range, we would stop training immediately.”

The U.S. Coast Guard routinely puts out a warning to mariners to steer clear of the area while the exercise is going on.

Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, said he based his report on information from a U.S. tour boat operator who was in the area.

The group corrected its statement Wednesday afternoon to say that live rounds were fired from shore.

Southern resident orcas, which are protected under Canadian and U.S. law, number 81 and reside in three pods. They are frequently seen in the protected inshore waters of the Juan de Fuca Strait, the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound.

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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